[Note: This review is of a censored, abridged version of Nymphomaniac: Vol. II. Director Lars Von Trier gave this version his approval, but did not create this cut.]
In Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, Joe’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) nymphomaniac has gone from a lilting, slightly melancholy, comically punctuated romp to a place of loss and ruin. She has passed “innocent” discovery and, like any addict, needs a bigger fix. She can’t help herself, and she becomes self-destructive as a result. In this way, writer-director Lars Von Trier is the same as his protagonist. He can’t get away from his greatest flaws no matter how hard he tries, and in Nymphomaniac: Vol. II, he tries pretty damned hard. There are still bouts of silly melodrama and off-kilter jokes, but Vol. II is far more brutal than Vol. I [my review], and Von Trier (unsurprisingly) seems to feel more comfortable in an environment of pain and suffering. Nevertheless, for all the stumbles and false notes, he builds to something emotionally impactful. And then he fucks it up.
Joe continues to relate her story to Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) and goes through the final three chapters: “The Eastern and the Western Church (The Silent Duck)” (this chapter has an interlude called “The Dangerous Men”), “The Mirror”, and “The Gun”. Like the first five chapters, the titles are pulled from images in Seligman’s apartment, but these chapters all tie together in a punishing manner. Her downward spiral rips at her physically and emotionally, and it all culminates into discovering how all of her sins led her to being beaten and left in the alley where Seligman found her.
If Vol. I lived in the comic extremes, Vol. II wallows in the shadows. Joe even shuts down the comedy when Seligman tries to talk about bondage ropes by telling the story of the mountain climber who invented them, and she coldly responds, “I think this was one of your weakest digressions.” He doesn’t interject again, and Joe can tell us without interruption about how K (Jamie Bell) beat her with a riding whip, how she lost her family, failed at abstinence, and how a second attempt at love fell apart in the worst way possible.
Von Trier is more surefooted when he only has to stick to misery. The age of self-discovery is over, and the age of desperation has begun. Joe doesn’t just have an addiction. Her entire identity is defined by sex, and she has almost no life outside of it. Shockingly, Von Trier even tries to soften the blow by showing the clinical professionalism of K’s sadomasochism. He doesn’t want sex; he has clear rules; and is completely up front with his clients. K is a service more than a person, although Jamie Bell’s quiet, almost compassionate performance is essential to removing any distracting emotions from the scenes. Chapter 6 isn’t about K’s sadism; it’s about Joe’s masochism.
Rather than bouncing around between tones and trying to find meaning in them, Vol. II is focused on a woman trying to escape from emotional pain and recapture her identity in the process. If she can get off, she’ll know who she is, and if she can’t get off, she’s lost. Joe has gone to war with her desires, and the reason for her stated self-loathing at the outset now starts to come into focus. The lust has almost won over love, and for Joe the only thing worse than unrelenting lust is overpowering love. Joe wants to reject it outright, and Nymphomaniac Vol. II provides a climax that cleverly and succinctly sums up the culmination of her sins and the reasons for her beliefs.
Even with Seligman shut down, the movie isn’t immune from distractions. There are loose ideas bouncing around such as how Joe’s behavior would be viewed differently if she were a man, or how she has respect for someone who feels the darkest of sexual desires but doesn’t act on it. These notions somewhat tie back into her story, but they feel more like something Von Trier tossed in because he wanted to mention them but couldn’t organically weave them into the entire narrative. Gender roles aren’t a major theme of the film and while sexual repression is more prevalent, this particular example is a clear but unnecessary addition.
Their inclusion is also part of Von Trier’s desire to over-explain everything. Whether it’s disdain for his audience or his own insecurity, Nymphomaniac constantly explains its symbolism, its reasoning, and its structure. The movie would be a far more rewarding experience if Von Trier trusted his audience to figure out elements that are, to be blunt, not incredibly complex. The hand-holding diminishes what could be a richer movie, but like Joe, the filmmaker doesn’t mind giving it up.
Where he does differ with his protagonist is in how he approaches the end of the story. For all of their faults and oddities, Joe and Seligman come to a place that feels like a worthy climax to their journey. It makes sense for both characters, the story—despite its many rough patches—reasonably led to this point, and Von Trier has earned his ending.
Except then he takes it one step too far, and everything comes crumbling down. We’re not seeing an understandable conclusion; we’re seeing a director’s worst tendencies. His desire to provide some misguided, confusing point doesn’t flow from what came before. Even if you accept that he’s trying to comment on the inescapability of addiction and tragic circumstances, the story doesn’t proceed logically to that point because of what occurred in the previous scene. I’m sorry to dance around it so much, but I would hate to deny you this infuriating moment.
Then again, Nymphomaniac is a frustrating work from beginning to end, so perhaps this hair-pulling conclusion is fitting. I can’t help but wonder if Von Trier’s uncut, five-hour version would flesh out what he’s trying to accomplish or make the experience more tedious (I’m inclined to believe the latter). Somewhere in this hot, sweaty mess of two movies, there’s something insightful and emotionally resonant. Von Trier is the only filmmaker who could assemble this cast and have the resources to “go there”. The problem, as Nymphomaniac ultimately shows, is that Von Trier is a poor navigator.